The Spring and Autumn Style 春秋笔法

by Geremie R Barmé
The Spring and Autumn Annals Source:

The Spring and Autumn Annals

One of the main features of New China Newspeak 新华文体 is its ‘moral-evaluative’ dimension. In this it builds on patterns of moral judgment used by writers in pre-modern times, be they historical, cultural or artistic judgments. For those who would use the past as a mirror to guide present actions, evaluations and moral judgments were crucial.

It is the concern of many students of things Chinese (be they in or outside China) that the yawning gap between reality and rhetoric should, in the long run, make things untenable, or lead to some massive revision or collapse of the vestigial ideological power of the party-state. Taking a sideways glance at the parallels between Soviet and Chinese socialism, however, and if we remain mindful of the lessons that have been learnt from the Soviet collapse, one could say that party-state rule in China has created a range of appealing and abiding ideological simulacra. To date these have incorporated cultural alternatives and opponents in a ‘postmodern pastiche’ of the kind originally described in the Russian philosopher Mikhail Epstein’s work on the former Soviet ideological landscape. This kind of pastiche has also been commented on (and denounced) by China’s own New Left and retro-Maoists.

In his work on relativistic patterns in totalitarian thinking, Mikhail Epstein analysed totalitarianism as ‘a specific postmodern model that came to replace the modernist ideological stance elaborated in earlier Marxism’. He argued that the use of what he called ‘descriptive-evaluative’ words, that is terms that combine both descriptive and evaluative meanings or connotations — ‘ideologemes’ employed universally in Soviet speech — communicate not only information but also a specific ideological message, or concealed judgments that take the form of words. Epstein’s view of how ideologemes functioned in Soviet public discourse finds striking parallels in reformist-era China (1978–). In short, Epstein noted that a key to the function of ideologemes is that they can encompass both leftist and rightist concepts, embracing the spectrum of utilitarian shifts made within a totalitarian or rather a totalising system, that is a system that can incorporate and reconcile logical inconsistencies and opposing ideas.

Mikhail Epstein Source:

Mikhail Epstein

A simple example of this can be found in the expression ‘socialist market economy’. It is a term created to convey the extreme contradictions within contemporary economic realities; it is an expression that allows for an ideological underpinning to what, superficially at least, appears to have been an example of the party’s retreat from its avowed state-centred Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary ideals. According to Epstein, this kind of linguistic formulation is not the result of a desperate pragmatism; rather it is the reflection of the core philosophy of a politics which ‘uses leftist slogans to defeat the right, rightist slogans to defeat the left’, a politics that strives throughout to maintain its own primacy. This is a primacy that is not merely about temporal power, but one that is also about dominion in the realms of ideas and emotions.

Totalitarian speech is marked by its ability to employ ideologically laden words to weaken opposing sides while taking advantage of the resulting confusion. I would note that the Chinese language — and what is under discussion here, New China Newspeak — has a rich and venerable lexicon of words that have been converted under party-state rule to act as ‘ideologemes’. It is a lexicon that, according to tradition, was first formulated by Confucius when he purportedly edited the history of the State of Lu 鲁国, the Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋, judiciously selecting expressions to depict political actions in moral terms. Classical scholars claimed that the Sage thereby created a ‘Spring-and-Autumn writing style’ 春秋笔法 which relied on a vocabulary of baobian ci 褒贬词, or judgmental words, to praise bao 褒 or censure bian 贬 every political act and event recorded in the annals of Lu.

In modern usage, all activities beneficial to the party-state are represented by words with positive connotations 褒义词, while those that are deleterious in nature are condemned with negative verbs, nouns and adjectives 贬义词. The growth or maturation of socialist society has led to a linguistic accretion, one that incorporates Maoist doublethink of the first three decades of the People’s Republic with the patriotic parole of Reform. The general party line exists in a state of constant tension with both right and left deviations, maintaining a rhetorical and practical balance between the two. This was notably evident in the populist, and popular, ‘Sing Red Crush Black’ 唱红打黑 campaign launched in Chongqing as part of an effort to clamp down on local mafias (as well as business and bureaucratic enemies) while extolling a nationalistic-Maoism through mass choral performances. One could postulate, as Epstein does for Soviet Marxism, that ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’— the theoretical formula that underwrites contemporary China — is an enigmatic and hybrid phenomenon that, ‘like postmodern pastiche… combines within itself very different ideological doctrines’.